ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Waiting for reason in Illinois schools
by Dennis Smith
Dennis Smith is superintendent of Harrisburg CUSD 3 in southeastern Illinois.
I haven’t yet seen the latest, highly anticipated documentary coming soon to a theater near me. We have been scrambling from one loud, disparaging voice to another spending more time trying to satisfy the critics than accomplishing true school reform. I know the film “Waiting for Superman” will attack most of what I have worked on and believed in for many, many years as a teacher, principal and superintendent.
I’m not saying we don’t have our lumps coming. But before I sit through another scathing commentary on what I have spent tending, I would like for the critics to consider two points that I know won’t be represented in “Waiting for Superman.”
One real problem we face is that politicians and the Illinois State Board of Education are intimidated into not giving us real analysis of our test scores. In my district, we get batches of scores represented by six to eight different teachers per grade level. It is broken down by white, Asian, low income, special education, and on and on. But a breakdown of individual classrooms? No way. Most people don’t realize that isn’t provided in our reports.
They now have enough testing data in the system to tell us that every student who had “Mrs. Johnson” for math in fourth grade in our district scored three points lower for the next three years of testing. Likewise, “Mrs. Jones” produced kids who exceed by four points in the next two years. They can tell us “Mrs. Johnson” has a problem teaching fractions and “Mrs. Jones” is doing something with decimals that seems to propel her students ahead of the others. Now that would be information I could use immediately.
They can do this! It is a matter of programming.
Then we could specifically examine both teachers and see what is or isn’t happening and make the principal provide proper training. Talk of dismissal can be way down the road. A teacher might be thankful to have such information. I know I would.
If we are to be tested, then give us something we can use. If evaluation of test scores is not valid at the individual class level, then how is it valid at the grade or district level? In Southern Illinois, we say that dog doesn’t hunt.
A second problem: send us the text books! And, based on what you find in our test scores, send an expert to teach our math teachers how to do division by three numbers or the language teachers how to teach prepositions. Or, call in all sixth grade math teachers in the state to a required training session in Springfield.
Currently, in-service is up to us, and we send teachers to possibly worthless workshops in St. Louis or Paducah or somewhere else. We don’t know how good the workshops are and if the folks who set them up have any idea what our test scores are and where we are falling down.
Common Core Standards are coming down the pike. The state superintendent has said it is important to note that these are not curriculum. Curriculum would still need to be developed locally, with input from administrators and teachers that would allow for multiple strategies to best educate all children.
Oh, please! I don’t know anybody in my profession who believes curriculum is local anymore. That went away with IGAP — if it wasn’t gone before that. Why would ISBE take such a position? It’s simple, really.
If the state board takes over local curriculum (they have), they stand to be blamed if it fails. (Yes, we would do that.) And, if they develop our local curriculum they would need to provide us with appropriate texts. They don’t have the money to do that. They won’t even recommend a book that best teaches the Illinois Learning Standards.
Interestingly, they tell us in detail how to borrow money, equip a bus, manage student records, conduct a fire drill, determine if a student is a resident, pay the prevailing wage to workers and serve a hot lunch. Yet, when it comes to what appears to be the most important measure of what we do, we essentially are left to figure it out on our own. For many of us, the position of curriculum director went away with declining revenue.
ISBE has the experts and resources to research and develop learning standards, so please equip us with the best practices on how to teach each one and then give the teachers the resources to go do it.
Note that I am not asking for cash; I am asking for information and materials.
Most of us out here in the trenches agree a standard of accountability is necessary. If we knew of one, we would put it on the table. But we don’t know of one. Why? Call it apples to oranges.
My son is a lawyer. I doubt any school he attended gets much credit for his learning. He would have exceeded the standards under great or poor teaching. There are many like him. My district always received credit for his learning, while really not participating much in it.
On the other hand, with other children we do miracles. Caring, loving teachers take certain children miles and miles each year. Those same children usually test and do not meet the learning standards. No Child Left Behind clearly concludes that we failed to help that student. We know better.
Credit for where we don’t deserve it and a failing grade where we did the impossible. I don’t know how to fix that when it comes to public accountability.
So we continue to wait for somebody who can make the entire system sensible to those on the outside and the inside.
Waiting for Superman, indeed.
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